April 12, 2001

Opposition to possibly providing Baltz Elementary School as the venue for one of two proposed charter schools and allegedly giving priority to building new schools over repairing existing ones led to rejection of the Red Clay Consolidated School District's building bond issue, the school board was told. The board also received a proposal for operating Highlands Elementary year around.

"We just recently heard about a charter coming to Baltz," said Susan Shute. "We don't want Baltz to become a charter school. We want to keep our neighborhood school."

A parent, she was part of a delegation from the Elsmere school and nearby Oak Hill and Willow Run who showed up on Apr. 11 at the regularly scheduled business meeting of the board to vent their feelings. Their appearance was in sharp contrast to the usual practice of a taciturn public at Red Clay sessions.

"I'm tired of being treated like idiots," said Janet Sharpless, a Wilmington resident. "Why not include us (parents) in your process before you make all your decisions final?"

Richard Lynch, who identified himself as a teacher in the district, suggested that the timing for expanding charter-school presence is not appropriate. "The future of education in Delaware is up in the air and we're rushing as fast as we can for a charter school. It seems strange that we're doing that before everything else is settled," he said.

"Politics and greed have you prioritizing (sic) your needs and wants and not the children's," said Chris Davis, co-president of the Baltz Parent-Teacher Organization.

As Delaforum previously reported, Mosaica Inc., a for-profit company which already has one state-chartered school in Wilmington, has applied to Red Clay for two more charters. Red Clay is the only school district in the state which has chartered a school, Charter School of Wilmington.

It was announced that the board will hold three public hearings on the matter and consider it at a special workshop-style session during the coming month.

What is significant about the charter school issue -- which was not a part of the building program for which voters failed to approve local financing in the referendum -- is that the negative vote at Baltz was by far the largest turned in by any polling place. Had votes there adhered to the general pattern in the district as a whole, board president William Manning noted just after the votes were counted on Apr. 10, the $74 million local bond issue might have been approved. At the time, he attributed the Baltz vote to "petty political reasons."

Neither Manning nor any other board member responded to the criticism voiced at the business meeting. After the comment period, they spent just three minutes approving minutes of previous meetings and voting en bloc on some routine contracts and personnel assignments before returning to the closed-door executive session which preceded the public meeting.

As usual, there was no indication of what was being talked about behind the doors, but a source indicated to Delaforum that no consensus of board members has yet been reached concerning whether to attempt again to secure approval of the bonds before the close of the current fiscal year on June 30 or to push the building program timetable back at least a year and wait at least until autumn before holding another referendum. That there will be a second attempt was the consensus of board members and district administrators who witnessed the vote count.

From comments at the board meeting, it was clear that bundling improvements at all schools with construction of new elementary buildings at Stanton and near Hockessin did not sit well with voters.

Maria Santa Barbara said she voted against the bond issue because she felt "the majority should benefit before the select few" and called on the board to put renovations ahead of new construction on the program schedule when it returns for a second vote.

Sharpless criticized the district for producing brochures and telemarketing scripts for soliciting favorable votes which virtually ignored the proposed new buildings. Joe Gregg suggested the district might be liable for civil action or even criminal prosecution for allegedly providing the marketers with information concerning district parents which is proceed by federal privacy law.

The year-around school proposal, which came before the public comment session at the meeting, was for the most part a repeat of one made last summer. The matter will be on the agenda for the board's May business meeting.

As described by Highlands principal Judy Stranch, the school would operate on four quadmesters, devoting nine weeks to conventional schooling and three weeks to optional remedial work or enrichment courses. She was not specific on what would happen in the 13th week in each calendar quarter.

Since the number of days spent in conventional schooling would remain at the present 180 a year, that would not amount to conducting a 'year-round' school, but adhering to a 'balanced calendar'. She said that term is preferable to deflect public opposition to deviating from the traditional summers-off arrangement. She said the three week periods -- participation in which would be optional for both students and teachers -- would be known as 'intersessions'.

Highlands is proposing converting to the new arrangement in August, 2002. Whether that still holds is uncertain because air conditioning that building in west Wilmington shared with the new schools the initial year in the building projects schedule which went down with the bond issue in the referendum.

Stranch said the entire student body at Highlands would be on the new schedule. Parents who did not want their children to be included would be able to transfer them to one of the other schools though the public school choice system. Lewis and Warner are closest to Highlands. To provide for that, she said Highlands will have to have the green light to proceed by the opening of the 'choice' application process in November.

She said there are several advantages to not shutting down over the summer. They range from more effective learning and reducing the likelihood of 'teacher burnout' by eliminating long stretches of work to more productive use of facilities. Most often cited is preventing students form forgetting some of the things they have learned during the long break. Manning remarked that "the excitement of mid-June tends to become boredom by August."

Not the least among the benefits is enabling families to take vacations at off-peak times, Stranch said. "They can go to Disney World and not have to wait in those long lines."

2001. All rights reserved.

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